Deciding who is a farmer

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QUICK! The number of farmers in the United States is: (a) 2.3 million, (b) 1 million, or (c) 315,330? Actually, nobody knows. The US Department of Agriculture counts 2.3 million farmers -- people who sell, or could sell, at least $1,000 of agricultural products each year.

``They're not a farmer,'' scoffs Terrell Hudson, a bona fide farmer in Unadilla. ``If they're farmers, I'm a veterinarian, a doctor, a truck driver, and a mechanic.'' Mr. Hudson headed a committee of Georgia Farm Bureau members who tried to determine the number of farmers in the state. After three meetings, they gave up.

Calvin Beale, director of demographics at the Agriculture Department estimates there are 1 million commercial farmers. But economists include only those whose gross annual farm sales exceed $100,000 (there are 315,330 of those).

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The debate over definitions is critical right now; farmers are in trouble and federal funds are tight.

What's needed is a way of defining the farmer, determining which ones need help, and directing benefits to them, says James H. Anderson, vice-provost of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University. But current farm programs don't work that way. They subsidize bushels of production. With such programs, large farmers benefit disproportionately, according to a 1984 US Senate report.

Who needs the most help? Contrary to popular belief, it probably isn't the nation's smallest farmers, the part-timers, economists say, because they have other jobs. ``The toll is going to be heaviest among the midsized farms,'' says Luther Tweeten, a economics professor at Oklahoma State University.

Others who have studied the problem, notably Marty Strange, co-director of the Center for Rural Affairs, hold that the midsized farms may actually survive the current depression better than the larger operations, which they believe are less adaptable and are propped up by federal subsidies.

Bill Haw, head of a large corporate farm in Kansas City, Mo., thinks large farmers need more help. ``Aside from ourselves, I don't know any large commercial operator who is not losing very substantial amounts of money.''

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